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In 1771, the British Parliament had long been a highly secretive body. The official record of the actions of the House were publicly available, but there was no such record of debates. The publication of remarks made in the House became a breach of Parliamentary privilege, punishable by the two Houses. As more people became interested in parliamentary debates, more individuals published unofficial accounts of parliamentary debates. Editors were at worst subjected to fines. Several editors used the device of veiling parliamentary debates as debates of fictitious societies or bodies. The names under which parliamentary debates were published include Proceedings of the Lower Room of the Robin Hood Society and Debates of the Senate of Magna Lilliputia.
In 1771, Parliament ceased to punish the publishing of its debates, partly due to the campaigns of John Wilkes on the behalf of free speech. There then began several attempts to publish reports of debates. Among the early successes, the Parliamentary Register published by John Almon and John Debrett began in 1775 and ran until 1813.
William Cobbett, a noted radical and publisher began publishing Parliamentary Debates as a supplement to his Political Register in 1802, eventually extending his reach back with the Parliamentary History. Cobbett's reports were printed by Thomas Curson Hansard from 1809; in 1812, with his business suffering, Cobbett sold the Debates to Hansard. Neither Cobbett nor Hansard ever employed anyone to take down notes of the debates, which were taken from a multiplicity of sources in the morning newspapers. For this reason, editions of Hansard are not to be absolutely relied upon as a guide to everything discussed in Parliament.
Hansard was remarkably successful in seeing off competition such as Almon and Debrett, and the later Mirror of Parliament published by J.H. Barrow from 1828 to 1843; Barrow's work was more comprehensive but he checked each speech with the Member and allowed them to 'correct' anything they wished they had not said. The last attempt at a commercial rival was The Times which published debates in the 1880s. In 1889, the House decided to subsidise its publication so that a permanent record was available and it included more speeches and a near-verbatim record of front-bench speeches.
The Hansard of today, a fully comprehensive account of every speech, began in 1909 when Parliament took over the publication. At the same time the decision was made to publish debates of the two houses in separate volumes, and to change the front cover from orange-red to light blue. A larger page format was introduced with new technology in 1980.
The Hansard is not a verbatim account of debates in Parliament. It seeks to eliminate "repetitions and redundancies." One instance of such an eliminated redundancy involves the calling of members in the House of Commons. In that House, the Speaker must call on a member by name before that member may speak; the Hansard, however, makes no mention of the recognition accorded by the Speaker. Also, the Hansard sometimes adds extraneous material to make the remarks less ambiguous. For example, though members refer to each other as "the Honourable Member for Constituency Name" rather than by name, Hansard adds, in parantheses, the name of the member being referred to; when a Member simply points at another whose constituency he cannot remember, Hansard identifies them.
Interjections from seated members are not always included. Generally if the remark was heard clearly and the member speaking at the time referred to it, there will be a mention, but not otherwise. Any interruption to debate, whether from the member losing his place in his notes, being shouted down, or the physical invasion of the chamber, will be marked with the word "(Interruption)".
Also published in the Hansard are written answers made by Government ministers in response to questions formally posed by members. Since 1909, and for important votes before then, the list of members voting in Divisions are given. Furthermore, the proceedings and debates in committee are also published in separate volumes.
For many years Hansard did not formally acknowledge the existence of parties in the house, though in 2003 this changed and so members' party affiliations are now identified.
The term Hansard is also used for the proceedings of the Parliament of Canada and the Canadian provincial legislatures, the Parliament of Australia and the Australian state parliaments, the national Parliament of South Africa and South Africa's provincial legislatures and the Parliament of New Zealand.
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